History Awaits: All Eyes on American Pharoah's Triple Crown Quest

Chance to End a 37-Year Drought Translates to a Big Turnout for NBC

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American Phatoah after arriving at Belmont Park.
American Phatoah after arriving at Belmont Park.

When American Pharoah steps into the starting gate at Belmont Park Saturday afternoon, he'll be the fourteenth horse to contend for the Triple Crown since the big chestnut Affirmed last took the honor back in 1978. And as is generally the case when there's a chance to bear witness to history, NBC is all but guaranteed a big turnout for its broadcast of the 2015 Belmont Stakes.

According to Nielsen data, last year's Belmont race was the most-watched in a decade, as 20.4 million viewers tuned in to see if California Chrome could end the drought. And while thoroughbred racing tends to attract an older crowd -- 75% of the 2014 Belmont's deliveries fell outside the TV's key 18-to-49 demo -- advertiser guarantees for high-end sports are made against household ratings. In this case, NBC notched an 11.9 household rating, where each ratings point represents 1% of TV households; to put that in perspective, ABC notched a 10.3 household rating with its coverage of the fifth and deciding game of the 2014 NBA Finals.

Indeed, the Belmont is a feast-or-famine proposition for NBC, which owns the rights to all three tent pole races. Since the century began, there have been five Belmonts with Triple Crown potential, and together those broadcasts averaged 16.7 million viewers and a 10.4 HH rating. By comparison, the 2012 race, which was blighted by a late scratch by the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I'll Have Another, drew a paltry 7.67 million viewers and a 4.9 rating.

Media buyers who have steered clients into the Triple Crown broadcasts say NBC sells the three-race package upfront, locking in as much as 85% to 90% of its available inventory before the first strains of "My Old Kentucky Home" are heard in the stands at Churchill Downs. In other words, the network generally only has a small percentage of spots in the Belmont to sell at a relative premium.

Still, the rate hikes on the few spots that are up for grabs after the Preakness is considerable. One buyer estimates that a scatter buy made after American Pharoah's second victory cost as much as $325,000 per 30 seconds of Belmont airtime. That's about a 65% markup from the average upfront unit cost for time in the three races ($200,000 per :30).

NBC this week locked in the rights to the Belmont through 2020, a deal that follows on the heels of its 10-year renewal of the Kentucky Derby package. Unlike other rights deals, which are negotiated with a given sport's governing body, thoroughbred racing TV contracts are doled out by state racing guilds (the New York Racing Association and the Maryland Jockey Club) and, in the case of the Derby, Churchill Downs Inc.

NBC is presently negotiating a long-term extension of its Preakness Stakes deal, which expires at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, should the bay colt with the short tail and earplugs become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, the giddy post-race coverage should prove to be a boon to NBC's prime-time schedule. At 7 p.m. ET, the puck drops on NBC's coverage of Game 2 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks.

While NBC didn't exactly get the matchup it was hoping for (R.I.P., Rangers), the first Lightning-Hawks showdown put up solid numbers. The June 3 broadcast averaged 5.55 million viewers, making it the most-watched non-overtime Game 1 since 1997. The opening game of the best-of-seven series delivered a 3.4 HH rating, up 13% from the 3.0 posted by last year's Los Angeles- New York curtain-raiser.

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